One of my very favorite songs of the current decade remains “Ten Percent to the Ten Percent”, Cursive’s contribution to their home label Saddle Creek’s 2005 Hurricane Katrina charity compilation Lagniappe. The text of the song consists of the scornful confessions of an employee at a nameless big box department store, coasting into a meager position on his father’s good name and poised for the company’s self-proclaimed “endless opportunity”. He drinks on the job, stages craps games for his co-workers on company time and soon graduates onto internal theft. He’s soon caught, fired and explodes, just as the song itself does, into a vicious tirade (“Fuck you and your job!”) before leading, far more cogently, to the song’s scathing denouement: “You’re restless, devoided, your job keeps you broke / Big business booms to make sure that we don’t”. Call its message suspect if you like — do shitty minimum wage corporate jobs really justify the narrator’s self-diagnosed “fits of debauchery” at his employer’s expense? — but as mundane as its subject matter and as petulant as its point of view may be, the song is one bit of agit-punk that managed to nail its target in a way that many others that take on considerably larger evils struggle to take down even half as effectively. Cast off to a label compilation where, sadly, only the most devout fans will find it, it’s a small masterpiece.
Tim Kasher’s best songs tend to be intense confessionals in exactly this mode, tightly coiled and ready to explode into a seething rock fury. They thrive, if not quite on sloppy spontaneity, then certainly on an escalating tension that comes from their singer and composer’s ability to sound forever teetering on the brink of collapse. If his band has become steadily more accomplished over the course of their six albums to date, this technical proficiency has admirably much less to do with creating more commercially accessible music than it has been simply a means of adding further texture to their existing sound.
Disappointing, then, that in the interim Cursive’s albums have become increasingly labored things, hamstrung by Kasher’s desire to squeeze them into heavy-handed structural frameworks. Perhaps encouraged by how well the conceptual approach served him on the band’s two most acclaimed releases — 2000’s Domestica was a bluntly autobiographical divorce record and 2003’s The Ugly Organ was a convoluted meta-examination of the artist’s volatile relationship with his work — the albums now strain for cohesiveness, too often at the expense of the music. Their last outing, 2006’s Happy Hollow, tackled religious hypocrisy amidst an ambitious Wizard of Oz allegory, an intriguing premise that yielded some moments of interest (album highlight “Bad Sects” spun the homosexuality vs. spirituality debate into a stunningly evocative bit of short fiction) but eventually collapsed under its own weight.
Encouragingly, Mama, I’m Swollen seems to forego strict narrative for a somewhat more elastic thematic concern. Kasher’s lyrics this time out reveal an oppressive weariness with the present, a desire to leave behind the burden of knowledge. “Don’t wanna live in the now / don’t wanna know what I know”, he repeats on opener “In The Now” overtop of his band’s pummeling rage. The album’s regressive stance, however, quickly reveals itself as being not so much a longing for a return to childhood innocence, but rather to an even simpler primordial state. “From the Hips” proclaims “I hate this damn enlightenment / we were better off as animals”, while “We’re Going To Hell” pleads (with a lover? a politician? himself?) “Don’t tell me what you’ve done / ‘cause I don’t wanna know.” The beleaguered narrator of “Caveman” confesses “I want to unlearn what I’ve learned”, and later “this upward mobility is more than I can understand”. Even the initially cringe-worthy album title serves to underscore the theme; if the “mama” referred to throughout represents a longing to return to the womb (and Kasher is never one to shy away from such broad, dramatic symbolism), then perhaps “swollen” refers not only to growth but to injuries sustained through the ordeal of being alive and aware.
Even more encouraging is that the first half of Mama, I’m Swollen is undeniably fantastic, easily their tightest and most satisfying collection of songs since their earlier two mid-career triumphs. “In The Now” restores much of the band’s earlier punk rock assault, while the intensity of “From the Hips” is built through a well-paced soft-to-loud range. The measured array of horns and flutes that bend and weave throughout “I Couldn’t Love You” add lush texture to what is one of Kasher’s most heartfelt vocal performances, while the haunting music-box loop that echoes through the first half of the vaguely showtune-y “Donkeys” brilliantly highlights the song’s ominous narrative. The chaotic “Caveman” returns to the band’s tendency towards everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arrangements (reminiscent of their classic “Art Is Hard” from The Ugly Organ), a cacophony of guitars, drums and horns crashing against Kasher’s splaying vocals, paying little attention to meter or rhythm.
Unfortunately, it is a momentum that the album never manages to maintain in its frequently soggy second half. Once again confronted with having to stretch out his grand themes at album-length, Kasher begins either repeating himself or offering less interesting variations on ground he’s already travelled. “We’re Going to Hell” and “Let Me Up” are plodding and hookless, lacking even Kasher’s ability to enliven his songs with his usual dramatic intensity. “Mama, I’m Satan” and “Mama, I’m Swollen” itself both build up to typically messy conclusions, but are initially saddled with mid-tempo arrangements too limp to set up any such cathartic release. The becalmed finale “What Have I Done?” is actually quite graceful and lyrically reflective (“I’ve spent the best years of my life waiting on the best years of my life”) but at this point serves to provide a strong resolution to an album that only half deserves it.
Ironically, then, Mama, I’m Swollen winds up being yet another carefully crafted Cursive record that sounds best once listeners have gone through and cherry picked the strongest moments. Its high points undeniably high, the end result is nevertheless another mild disappointment from a songwriter who would do well to cut his songs loose a bit and let them stand on their own.